Tim Hames: Don't believe a word you hear in Denver next week

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The city of Denver will have many delights for the Democratic Party delegates and others who assemble there this weekend. It is, for instance, a place where one can join the Mile High Club without ever leaving the ground as it is situated precisely 1,760 yards above sea level. Its early history is, however, somewhat tainted. In the late 19th century it was virtually controlled by one Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II, a notorious showman and con artist around whom the film The Sting was partly inspired, who earned his nickname via a trick in which he would sell off bars of basically worthless soap to crowds who bought them for a dollar under the misapprehension that there might be a $100 bill prize hidden within them.

The spirit of Soapy Smith will be alive and well at this convention. The next week will feature a mixture of illusion, insincerity and outright hypocrisy which defy even the normal standards of contemporary politics. And it will be played out before an audience of millions.

It will start with a speech that Hillary Clinton is obliged to deliver, endorsing Barack Obama. Her prime-time slot is allegedly a consolation prize for not being considered for the vice-presidential portfolio, although as consolations go it makes those citizens of Denver who ended up purchasing a two cent chunk of soap for a dollar look fortunate. The text can be predicted in advance ("it was a long, hard, fight but we remained close friends throughout, now I will campaign my heart out for him" etc), but it will be totally fictitious.

Mr Obama and the Clintons utterly loathe each other. She (and her husband) continue to believe that she would have been the stronger contender against John McCain (probably true), that she was denied the prize because they were out-hustled in organisational terms, not real votes cast (valid), and that the Illinois Senator is little more than a charming schmoozer (a plausible assertion, although how ex-President Clinton can offer it with apparent outrage is surreal).

The Clinton-Obama display of unity will make the Nazi-Soviet Pact look like an event rooted in profound principle. She is aching for him to lose so that she can inherit the earth at the second time of asking come 2012. Never mind Mr McCain, she would prefer that Monica Lewinsky rather than Mr Obama was elected to the Oval Office this November.

That facade does, though, have a decent chance of being trumped a mere 24 hours later. For Mr Obama is scheduled to be officially nominated by Caroline Kennedy, the last surviving descendent of the slain President and the woman who, on the basis of no obviously relevant qualification whatsoever, was notionally tasked with overseeing the selection procedure for the vice-presidential running mate. The choice of Ms Kennedy for this role is no accident. The Kennedy clan, determined to ward off the unwanted competing claim of the Clintons to be the first family of Democratic politics, backed Mr Obama early in the race and delivered vital liberal support to him. He in turn has been eager to wrap himself in the JFK mantle.

That was manifested most overtly in his address made in Berlin last month, but is actually a permanent fixture of his strategy. That they have nothing in common bar partisan allegiance and a capacity for oratory is immaterial. Even those who would prefer that he lose must ache for Mr McCain to adapt and borrow from Lloyd Bentsen's devastating critique of Dan Quayle 20 years ago and turn on his rival in one of the presidential debates to retort "I did not know Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was not a friend of mine, Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

Then there will be the Obama acceptance speech itself. This is customarily delivered in the convention centre auditorium (not unreasonably), but on this occasion it will occur elsewhere in a stadium that is capable of seating about 70,000 souls. This could be regarded as just a shade egotistical. It is, nonetheless, completely rational because Mr Obama, who has been in the Senate for less than four years (and has spent much of that time striving for the White House rather than engaging in the tedium of legislation) has relied more on rhetoric for his meteoric rise than possibly any politician in any democracy at any point in history. He may, in fairness, be a fabulous administator. There happens to be no shred of evidence either way.

Yet regardless of any of this, what will happen in Denver will be compulsive viewing. Although this is a close contest and may remain so to the end, the election is one in which Obama remains the favourite. Added to which, Soapy Smith maintained his act profitably in Denver for 20 years. This Democratic nominee has but 10 weeks in which to keep up appearances.

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08

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